Why Write Jewish Plays?—A Talmudic Inquiry*
#JewPlay: What is the future of Jewish theatre in the United States? In this series, co-curators David Winitsky, Artistic Director of New York’s Jewish Plays Project and Guy Ben-Aharon, Producing Artistic Director of Boston’s Israeli Stage, asked Jewish theatre practitioners from major regions of the country what Jewish theatre means to them.
I never set out to write a Jewish play, but since my early twenties, Judaism has worked its way into several of my plays.
I was raised Reform (a more progressive form of Judaism) by parents who met at a Jewish singles group. My father grew up attending a yeshiva. He broke his father’s heart when he decided to join the Air Force rather than become a Rabbi. Judaism was a part of my world early on. My brother had a bris. We went to synagogue regularly and celebrated the high holy days. I attended a Jewish summer camp (possibly the only one in the state of Texas). I had a Bat Mitzvah. I was one of two Jews in my graduating class of roughly 650 students at my High School. I went on a birthright Israel trip. Jewish values grabbed a hold of my world early on—“lashon hara,” “the tongue can wound;” the Talmudic adage, a single life is the equivalent of an entire world; “Tikkun olam,” the world is broken, and it’s our job to fix it. “Kafui tova,” never be ungrateful.
Ultimately the way Judaism consciously manifests in my work has had more to do with the ways I struggle with it.
Because cognitive dissonance can be a great starting point for a play.
I think a lot of the time, we write from the points of tension in our lives—the conflicting ideas that we can’t quite put together. That sometimes our backgrounds are fodder for great conniptions that become plays.
My beliefs are closer to secular humanism. To be exclusively culturally Jewish has always felt like a paradox given that most of the ways of directly participating in the culture (lighting a menorah on Hanukah, attending a Seder, for example) are closely tied to the religion and involve the word God. Most of my plays addressing Judaism explore this core tension through characters seeking secular ways into traditionally religious Jewish rituals.
That said, after Jewish Plays Project’s Artistic Director, David Winitsky asked for my perspective for this series as a writer who makes “a deep engagement with Jewish ideas a part of her work,” I examined my play The Man in the Sukkah closely. I realized how much Jewish spiritual / mystical ideas are integral to the play…
Jewish spirituality also holds that miracles are everywhere and God is present in unlikely places including each other.
Because sometimes the texts and myths you’re raised with can abstractly creep into your work.
In The Man in the Sukkah, Aviva, fourteen, avoids her new foster mother Elaine by living in the yard in a sukkah (a hut with three walls used for Sukkot, a festival that celebrates the harvest). The arrival of a mysterious man in her sukkah shakes up the characters’ world, testing them and ultimately bringing them together. The man turns out to be Elaine’s long lost brother and his arrival is intended to be read two ways (perhaps a product of my agnosticism): he has either been summoned by the characters’ need for him, or he has returned purely on his own volition to confront a violent part of his family’s history. This was almost certainly influenced by the stories of the Tanakh (the Jewish book of Holy Scriptures), where angels visit humans and characters are tested by God. Jewish spirituality also holds that miracles are everywhere and God is present in unlikely places including each other.
The tone of The Man in the Sukkah is heavily influenced by a chilling passage in the Tanakh that haunted me for years.
Your guards are like locusts
Your marshals like piles of hoppers,
Which settle on stone fences
On a chilly day;
When the sun comes out, they fly away
And where they are nobody knows.
—Nahum, one of the twelve minor prophets in the book of Nevi’im
Because Judaism is fascinating.
Judaism is filled with divisive issues, miracles, dangerous angels, highly symbolic traditions, and eccentric personalities. Jewish people have experienced thousands of years of discrimination. Despite being less than .2 percent of the world’s population, they’ve massively influenced mainstream culture.
I find sometimes my writing is a collision of the things I am struggling with and the things that fascinate me, bound together by the things that make a great story.
(In this case, thing I am struggling with + things that fascinate me + things that make a great story = a Jewish play).
My paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. If I can’t fully embrace Judaism in my life religiously, I can carry the torch artistically.
Because Judaism is a dramatic treasure chest.
If you break it down, rituals are like the DNA of the stage. Plays are made of them.
And Judaism has a lot of rituals. In Orthodox Judaism there’s a prayer for nearly everything. There’s a prayer to celebrate going to the bathroom (Asher Yatzar, though I’m not sure how that one lives on the stage).
Judaism also has a lot of holidays and is rich with parables, music and metaphors that not only live beautifully on the stage, but are full of dramatic potential. And we should be filling the stage with our rituals and our understanding of them, our distance from them, and our closeness— like a massive show and tell.
Because the more perspectives shared the better. Also, it’s a powerful and specific way into deeply relatable human issues.
I experienced a few insecurities when I was asked to participate in this series. First of all—who wants to write their self into a cultural niche? My plays don’t all address Judaism (so far only three do and two of them I wrote in undergrad). I also experienced a sticky intrusive thought that probably sits in rabbit hole/holy-hell-don’t-go-there-territory: By separating ourselves into cultural groups are we inadvertently ghettoizing the theatre?
But I realize that’s maybe absurd. A lot of non-Jewish audience members attend Jewish theatres and a lot of Jewish plays are performed at non-Jewish specific theatres. Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, which makes great use of a Seder and focuses on slaves that adopted Judaism on a Jewish-owned plantation, is one of the most widely produced new plays of the past few years. Larry Loebell’s House Divided, which was supported by a commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, had its world premiere at InterAct Theater in Philadelphia. Karen Hartman’s Leah’s Train, about three generations of Jewish women, world premiered in 2009 at the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO). And more obscurely (for good reason), The Diary of Anne Frank, The Musical, which my 8th grade teacher had the misfortune of taking my class to see, (she had assumed it was Goodrich and Hackett’s version) toured to the Paramount/State Theater in Austin.
Also, culturally specific theatre is extremely important.
Many people don’t realize that Judaism encompasses an astounding array of identities, and voices, from entirely nontheistic to ultra-orthodox, with politics that run the gamut, and varying complicated perspectives on Israel. Some of us celebrate Chrismukkuh. We don’t fit a stereotype, a political leaning, an ethnicity. Beyond a history of oppression, what we primarily share (when we follow them) is a set of ethics and values (loosely interpreted from the Torah and other texts). The more Jewish identities are represented in the theatre and other mediums the better.
Culturally specific theatre is particularly powerful when it subverts a stereotype, or offers a story much different from what audiences are used to seeing. This is what Jewish Plays Project is working on fulfilling by seeking plays with subversive and counterintuitive points of view. When I read for their national competition they also had me fill out a survey answering whether the characters I read fit a stereotypical portrayal, and they created a separate category for plays set during the Holocaust (an important story, but not our only one).
In the theatre, the unfamiliar and relatable are a powerful combination.
Culturally specific theatre is also particularly powerful when the issues addressed are both specific to the culture and universal. It’s powerful to insiders of the culture, who may seldom see themselves represented (or represented well) on the stage. And it can be powerful to outsiders of the culture, by not only breaking assumptions, but creating empathy. In the theatre, the unfamiliar and relatable are a powerful combination.
And a lot of issues in Jewish plays connect to more universal questions:
—How does one reconcile their current worldview with their upbringing?
—How does one act when personal values conflict with the needs of their community?
—How does the past impact the present and future generations?
There are more.
I think the soul of our plays often come from the personal struggles we draw from. I don’t think it’s a responsibility to write culturally specific theatre (who wants to read that play?), but when you’re moved to, it can be an access point into something specific and compelling.
Looking towards the future:
I want to see a multiplicity of Jewish perspectives represented on the stage. Plays that intelligently explore traditional Jewish stories and legends as a way into current issues. Plays that explore the effects of the words “never forget” on present and future generations. But really, any Jewish play where content and form stand under a Chuppah, break a glass and wed. Plays grounded in story, open to multiple interpretations. Plays that ask tough questions, that don’t preach, that land on more ambiguous grounds, that make us find our own answers or realize the impossible complexity behind the issues. Perhaps that would be the most Jewish play of all.
*Talmudic Reasoning is a way of thinking where you toss an idea around and look at it from every possible angle. It’s also been defined as “excessively hairsplitting scholarship.” Here is a funny joke about Talmudic inquiry.